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Zia Cooke, unbeaten No. 1 South Carolina women top Tennessee

Feb 23, 2023, 3:13 PM | Updated: Feb 24, 2023, 5:18 am

South Carolina guard Zia Cooke (1) shoots past Tennessee forward Rickea Jackson (2) during the seco...

South Carolina guard Zia Cooke (1) shoots past Tennessee forward Rickea Jackson (2) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

(AP Photo/Wade Payne)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Zia Cooke scored 19 points and Kierra Fletcher had 15 as No. 1 South Carolina spoiled Tennessee’s pack-the-paint strategy in a 73-60 victory Thursday night.

The Gamecocks (28-0, 15-0 Southeastern Conference) clinched at least a tie for the regular-season conference title.

“We’re blessed,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “We’re a low-maintenance, high-performance team. Can’t ask for more than that.”

The Lady Volunteers (20-10, 12-3) jammed the middle, trying to limit opportunities for star Aliyah Boston and daring the Gamecocks to beat them from the perimeter. Boston finished with 11 points.

“(Boston) is a high-level IQ basketball player,” Staley said. “She doesn’t force things. She always makes the right basketball play.”

Fletcher and Cooke combined to hit 5 of 8 3-pointers. The Gamecocks dominated the rebounding 48-34, with 20 of them on the offensive glass. Kamilla Cardoso had 15 boards and Brea Beal had 11 points and 11 rebounds. Sixteen of those offensive rebounds came in the first half.

“South Carolina … is a load,” said Tennessee coach Kellie Harper. “No one’s been able to crack them this year.”

“We had some schematic issues in the first half,” she said. “We’d have people sag off (on defense) but not box out.”

Rickea Jackson scored 21 points for Tennessee, which led 19-10 after the first quarter. Jordan Horston had 14 points and 11 rebounds and Karoline Striplin added 11 points.

Nine straight third-quarter points, five by Fletcher, turned a close game into a double-digit difference.

South Carolina had a 17-point run in the second quarter as it rallied from 10 down to later take a 33-29 halftime lead. Cooke scored eight straight points in that stretch.

The Lady Vols were held scoreless for more than 6 minutes before Striplin hit a 3-pointer just before the break.

“It takes a little bit of time,” Staley said of figuring out the Lady Vols’ strategy. “It takes time to figure out where the holes are. We had to maintain our defense.”

The Gamecocks went the final 4:44 of the first quarter without scoring as Tennessee built a nine-point lead.

“We lost our pace in the second quarter,” Harper said. “We got some offensive rebounds and looked so excited to get them.”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

South Carolina: The Gamecocks have been on top of the poll for 35 weeks, while winning 33 straight games. That’s third-most all-time behind UConn (51 weeks) and Louisiana Tech (36). … Sunday’s overtime escape from Mississippi State cost South Carolina one No. 1 vote this week, keeping the Gamecocks from being a unanimous selection for the first time all season. No. 2 Indiana got the one vote.

Tennessee: The Lady Vols have now lost to each of the top five teams in the poll. That statistic makes it easy to understand how they have to toughest schedule in the country.

BIG PICTURE

South Carolina: Since 1981-82, the NCAA Tournament era, only nine teams have had unbeaten seasons. UConn has done it six times and Baylor, Tennessee and Texas have done it once. … Ten of the 14 players on the Gamecocks’ roster are at least 6 feet tall.

Tennessee: Despite having three conference losses, the Lady Vols have locked up a double-bye for the SEC Tournament. … Horston came into the game with 427 assists, two behind Kristen Clement for No. 10 all-time in the Tennessee record book. … Tennessee junior Tess Darby has been named to the SEC Community Service Team for her involvement in a service trip to Rwanda through the university.

UP NEXT

South Carolina: Georgia will visit South Carolina on Sunday. Earlier this year, the Gamecocks beat the Bulldogs by 17 points.

Tennessee: The Lady Vols will close out their regular-season schedule at Kentucky on Sunday. The two teams have not met this season.

___

AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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Zia Cooke, unbeaten No. 1 South Carolina women top Tennessee